7 Feb 2010

Really old stuff

P1030456 One of the coolest things about living in the UK is just how mind-bogglingly old everything is. In Australia, unless you're looking at Aboriginal art and landscape formations (which are also cool but not as accessible to the city-girl), everything ‘old’ within sensible driving distance of a pub or coffee shop is only just over 200 years old - like The Rocks in Sydney. All the cobble-stoned olde worlde goodness you can handle, but only two streets really, dating back to when the first English chaps decided to set up house when they got off the boats in 1788.

In Britain, people have been building things out of stuff that doesn't fall down (stone, pretty much) for thousands and thousands of years. Skara Brae, in the Orkneys, for example, dates back to 3100 BC - that's FIVE THOUSAND YEARS. I don't know about anyone else, but that starts getting beyond what P1030451my wee brain can cope with. The other useful thing is that the UK is quite small geographically, so most areas near water (rivers, lochs etc) have been populated for a long time by people  fond of building things out of sturdy materials that would withstand snow, ice and the perpetual rain. Which means that today, in our modern society, where we can travel from London to Cardiff in five hours instead of five days, the remnants of these ancient buildings survive in the most suburban of locations all over the place - mostly now protected by government and private organisations dead keen on history.

Half an hour's drive from our flat in Greenwich, is the village of Eynsford. It's one of a thousand 'historic' villages dotted all over the UK, that you drive through in a blink of an eye. They are mostly full of city commuters (the only people who can afford to live in such picturesque surroundings) or families who've lived there since their great-great-grand-someone settled as a farmer centuries ago. These little villages tend to sit between great tracts of open land, but comparatively close together, so a drive through the Kent  countryside will be mostly green fields (crops, sheep, cows) then a tiny village, then more fields, then another tiny village. The villages sometimes join up as the urban sprawl creeps outward and housing developments of 'Tudor-style' semi-detached homes are seemingly dropped into empty land by an unseen hand (my chap likes to call it the 'house-machine being left on' - hundreds of identical houses in nice neat rows), but more often than not, they're quite separate.

P1030433But the cool, if slightly surreal, thing about them is that you'll be driving along and  suddenly, out of the corner of your eye, you'll spot a pile of stones, a shadowy dip in the landscape, a structure that looks out of place in the suburban skyline. It will be sitting there, quietly, as it has for a thousand years, with livestock, tourists and local teenagers wandering past and through it, mostly oblivious to any historical significance (this is particularly true of livestock), it's just part of their neighbourhood. But in a lot of cases, an unassuming pile of rocks, a stone wall or a ramshackle structure will be older than anything around it (the earth not withstanding). Point in case, Eynsford Castle. Or the ruins thereof.

A few weeks ago, on the one sunny Saturday we've had since Christmas, we'd programmed our sat nav with the postcode given to us in the English Heritage guidebook (which lives in our car for such adventures). We drove past the point on the map where the sat nav's voice P1030453 (an Irish chap named Sean) said (or would have said, had we not turned the sound off) 'You have reached your destination', five times before I finally spotted the English Heritage sign post saying 'Eynsford Castle'. I'd been joking to my chap that it was probably in the middle of someone's backyard... well... five minutes later we were negotiating a winding lane, in between the back fences of several semi-detached homes (and some very sweet slanty cottages) to what looked like someone's back driveway, to park alongside what were evidently local residents' cars (including a trailer) and lo, there was indeed the ruins of Eynsford Castle.

P1030434 The ruins are surrounded by what was a moat at some point (if I had a castle I'd so want a  moat) and English  Heritage have built a sturdy wooden bridge over the hollow that was the moat, leading into the main body of the castle, which is built on a raised section of ground. Now basically a pile of stone half- walls, it's more like a fort built by over-enthusiastic boy scouts who were called in for their tea before they could finish it. There is very much a feeling that it was a defined structure at some point, the information boards list out a kitchen, a great hall, a solar (lords and ladies chamber or bedroom) and undercrofts for both, with a spiral staircase that lead up to the first floor. Apparently there was some kind of Saxon structure built there before the castle was built in the late 11th century and many changes of hands and conflict surrounding the building throughout its life - at one point it was even a kennel and stable.

P1030436 It was a gloriously sunny day, but it was still very cold (witness the remains of a snowman still frozen in the  centre of the main section of the castle), not to mention the arrival of a family whose children didn't seem to grasp the concept of keeping their voices below a shout in public, so we did the rounds of the ruins, me taking entirely more photos than necessary, then wandered down to the stream at the back of the ruins. Snow melt water had raised the water to the top of the bank and there were a couple of resilient ducks trying to swim against the substantial current (and winning, to their credit), and the  stream flowed down into fields that were more like wetlands - we suspected the stream had been diverted from its original path at some point, to irrigate the fields below. Sometimes I think we've been watching too much Time Team.

P1030461But there was very much a feeling of something having happened there, rather than a cold, empty pile of stones, which is one of the best things about living in a country with so much history. The sense that you are standing where people stood a thousand years ago, where someone built a home and went about their daily lives, just as you are now (but they were probably considerably more smelly). It's one of what I call 'amoeba moments'. When you realise that in the grand scheme of the universe, you're an amoeba. A tiny, tiny organism bearing little or no impact on the gigantic surroundings that are space and time. That the world will go on around you, or without you, and maybe one day, a thousand years in the future, someone will stand where you stood, wondering what your life was like, but, like you today, with no clue about who you actually were. Or maybe they'll just have a picnic.